Monday, August 15, 2005

insert flying themed song lyric here

----Saturday was my day to live or die. More probably 'live'. Since most people do.
The day Matt and I had talked about for a month or two had finally arrived. Matt's dad was in town and Saturday would be our day. Our day for flying.
----Matt's dad has been a pilot since 1969, coincidentally, the year of my birth and as I clung to any number of superstitious signs from above, the '1969' coincidence seemed like either a really good omen for my safety, or the closing bookmark for my death.
----The plan was this: The three of us would take a bus from the Port Authority to New Jersey, get picked up by a small van from the small airport, Matt and his dad would fly around for an hour to burn off enough excess fuel to make it safe, weight-wise, for the three of us to fly and on their return, I'd then join them for another spin around the tri-state area. While Matt and his dad flew the first flight, I would check out the literature on flight schools since getting my pilot license has been a dream of mine since I was 11. That was the plan anyway.
----What happened was this: Matt and his dad took off. I went to the "pilot's lounge" - basically a large, darkened room with barco-lounger chairs and a tv, for traveling pilots to get some sleep on longer flights or layovers - and.... and I.. well, I slept. And by sleeping, entered the brotherhood of sleeping pilots, forever to mingle my tales of aeronautical acumen with the likes of Lindberg, Earhart and Snoopy. what am I talking about? I have no idea.
The next thing I knew, Matt had entered the pilot's lounge and before I could say "Hey, pilot's only!", I realized it was him and asked him how it went. He said he'd had a blast, but the turbulence and yawing had kind of gotten to him and he'd be staying on the ground while his dad & I went up for a while.
----Great. I'll die without my roommate then. Thanks Matt. Or not. In fact, probably not. In fact, almost surely not. I mean, who's the last person who died taking off from this airfield anyway? JFK Jr? really? ok.. that's creepy. And fine, people die. But mostly, they dont. They go up in airplanes, they fly around, they come back to earth at safe velocities. Safest form of transportation, right?? RIGHT??? And so it went... me, psyching myself up for my first flight in a small plane. Truth be told, it's also why I took a nap instead of keeping the brain active & running on thoughts of flying. I was either going to die or I wasn't & I probably wasn't so why not nap & then just walk out to that plane & do it? I'd be back in an hour or more, giddy & rambling on about how great it'd been. And so it went.
----The 'checklist' - If driving a car were like flying a plane, checklists would be relegated to history books and jokes amongst friends about the unimportance of safety. Do you remember how when you learned to drive you were told you had to check your tires for nearby sharp objects? Do you ever check your tires before driving? Thankfully, flight's addition of a 3rd dimension of travel requires a reassuring checklist of about 30-40 different switches & gauges to be checked & crosschecked. If I had thought about it more at the time, I suppose I could have viewed it as 30-40 more things that could have gone wrong - instead, I viewed them as support for flying being the safest form of travel. My job was to read off the items of the checklist as Bruce (Matt's dad) did the actual checking of switches & gauges. Done with that, I had only two other responsibilities: call out the CB frequencies of the ground control operator (directing taxiing planes on the ground) and that of the traffic control operator (directing planes in flight, near the airport) when asked for them and .. my other job... watch for other airplanes when we up.
----"Watch for airplanes" - three little words. so simple. almost fun, right? I was being asked to look for things. I assumed I'd be rather good at it since I look at things all the time. It's what I do. I can spot a thing from a long ways away or even a short distance. Easy? No. Not it Is Not. How... to describe... why... hmm.. - spot a fly crawling on someone's camoflage pants from 20 feet away. It's not the size or color of the thing to be spotted, it's the movement. Planes flying above the horizon can be spotted by how they stand out from the blue sky. Planes flying slightly below your altitude, despite often having white wing tops, blend into the roof's of houses, parking lots, malls, etc. It's the motion, and only the motion you have to train yourself to look for. Despite it being "my job" to spot other airplanes, Bruce pointed out the first 5. And out of 10 or more that we saw, I only first spotted 2 to his 8.
----The flying itself was truly great. There definitely was some yawing, some up & down turbulence, dipping of wings left to right.. pretty much any direction you can imagine a place bouncing - we did. The thing that most made it ok, aside from my continually reminding myself that people do this every day, was my having been up in helicopters twice before. The motion is remarkably similar - smooth flight with occasional bouncy-bouncies. (I believe that is the technical flight term for turbulence)
----We flew North East, over White Plains, NY & then out over the Hudson towards Stamford, CT. A light haze kept Manhattan slightly hidden, like looking through water-smudged glasses but ended up burning off almost completely after we'd banked around and started heading back. Sadly.. so sadly.. I had raced through the rest of the shots in my disposable camera and only got shots of the hazy Manhattan skyline as seen down the Hudson. With nothing left to take pictures of and no planes in sight, I studied surface details and as I try to do on any plane of any size I've ever flown in, I tried to spot people. At 2,500 feet, it can actually be done. Not just ant sized specs of dark on light concrete, but actual swinging arms & legs of people walking. Why do I do this? I'm not sure - perhaps it's the singular moment when the unreality of me somehow being thousands of feet in the air regains hold on the rest of the world.
----As we neared the airport, we switched over to traffic control and listened as the tower called out the whereabouts of the two planes in the sky with us. One, we'd had spotted, the other was well behind us but due to the tower's location fix on it, we could then spot it as well. We half-circled the airport, waited for the closer plane to land and then came in for our own landing. Landings are another unique moment I find intensely interesting. If anything is going to go wrong on a flight, it will almost surely be during the landing. And yet, I am -always- at my calmest for landings. Other people mention feeling the same way. I find that odd. As for myself, I often think to myself some variation of "well, I've come this far, if I'm going to die, I'm going to die and if I do... damn it, it's going to look pretty cool from where I'm sitting". So we swooped in over runway 4, Bruce slowed the engines to about 1/4th the rpm's they'd just been spinning at & we lined up perfectly with the centerline of the runway. A slight crosswind yawed us a little to the left but we kept the centerline dead ahead. 300 feet.. the relative silence is beautiful. 200 feet.. some slight corrections, a wing dips a touch and then rises. 100 feet.. despite what seems like a glide, our speed now becomes apparent. 50 feet.. the familiarity of runways is comforting. 15 feet, every pilot's dream... 5 and... touchdown.
----We coasted the length of the runway and powered up & around to our parking spot. We parked, ran through a short shutdown checklist and deplaned. Yes, I just wanted to say "deplaned". We headed back to the airport offices and sat outside for a while where the guy who had driven us to the aiport came out & started talking with us for a while. He chose then to tell us about the student pilot who "slammed his plane into the runway after a botched takeoff" - both wings sheared away, propellor ends bent to right angles, gas spilled everywhere but no fire, luckily. We went & looked at the plane, parked behind one of the hangars (smart - park it out of sight) and it looked -bad-. Quite bad. And yet, the body of the plane was intact, having the same sort of roll bar cages as dune buggies do, it's body kept it's shape and the pilot walked away with a scraped thumb. Granted, not everyone is so lucky, and still.. as far as numbers go it's the... yes.. sing it with me... "the safest form of travel".

[click on images to see larger versions if larger version of my sexyness are desired]

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